In memoriam: Cristiano Toraldo di Francia (1941-2019)

Cristiano Toraldo di Francia featured in the 2017 documentary Super Design, by independent curator and author Maria Cristina Didero and director Francesca Molteni
Cristiano Toraldo di Francia featured in the 2017 documentary SuperDesign, by independent curator and author Maria Cristina Didero and director Francesca Molteni
(Image credit: press)

Cristiano Toraldo di Francia, visionary architect, thinker and co-founder of Superstudio, passed away on 30 July, 2019 at the age of 78.

Born in Florence in 1941, his father was noted physicist and philosopher Giuliano Toraldo di Francia. He graduated from the University of Florence’s architecture program in 1968; his thesis project, Holiday machine on the Calabrian coast, was subsequently published in Domus, edited at the time by Giò Ponti.

Toraldo di Francia founded Superstudio in 1966 alongside fellow architect Adolfo Natalini. The two were later joined by G. Piero Frassinelli, Alessandro and Roberto Magris, and Alessandro Poli. As leading figures in the fledgling Italian Radical Design movement, Superstudio was activated by the political landscape of the time, namely the the student protests of the late 1960s and the 1966 flooding of the Arno River in Florence — in part due to industrialisation — which killed 101 people and destroyed countless priceless books and works of art.

The Sofo chair for Poltronova, 1968.

The Sofo chair for Poltronova, 1968.

(Image credit: C. Toraldo di Francia)

‘December 1966 witnessed the birth, from the mud of the Florence flood, of Superstudio,’ Toraldo di Francia wrote on his personal website. The group staged their pivotal exhibition ‘Superarchitettura’ the following month in the Tuscan town of Pistoia alongside local contemporaries Archizoom. The event was a defining moment in the short-lived history of Italian Radical Design and they took the opportunity to lay out a manifesto for their cause. The accompanying poster read: ‘Superarchitecture is the architecture of superproduction, of superconsumption, of superpersuasion to consume, of the supermarket, the superman, of superoctane gasoline. Superarchitecture accepts the logic of production and consumption, and works for its demystification.’

The 2017 documentary SuperDesign, by independent curator and author Maria Cristina Didero and director Francesca Molteni, greatly featured the work and legacy of Toraldo di Franca and Superstudio. ‘[He] was a gentleman, a generous human being and a visionary,’ remembers Didero. ‘His revolutionary voice would always stand out against the status quo; with intellectual and philosophical depth, his reflections towards society have always lead to unparalleled controversial projects.’

Few images have had greater potency in shaping the trajectory of architectural thought than those created by Toraldo di Francia and Superstudio. The Continuous Monument, whose cut-and-paste style echoes Toraldo di Francia’s thesis project, presents a series of images illustrating a speculative future where the built environment, in the form of great, rolling grids, has greedily devoured the landscape. It was the group’s way of lashing out against the pallid tyranny of modernism, which they saw as a symptom of the encroaching post-war homogenisation of consumer-driven life.

’Il Monumento Continuo, Grand Hotel Colosseo’ from 1969.

’Il Monumento Continuo, Grand Hotel Colosseo’ from 1969.

(Image credit: Fondazione MAXXI)

The grid motif would follow Toraldo di Francia throughout his career. A 1970 collection for Italian furniture company Zanotta featured simply formed tables, benches and cabinets clad in grids. Named for the notebook ubiquitous to architecture students but inspired by their rejection of Rationalist formulas in design, the pattern became the calling card of the group.

In 1972 Toraldo di Francia and Superstudio participated in ‘Italy: The New Domestic Landscape’, the seminal design exhibition held at New York’s MoMA curated by Emilio Ambasz. They presented a film entitled Supersurface: An alternative model for life on the Earth, which built on the idea of the continuous monument. Toraldo di Francia reflected on the project in a 2016 interview with the New York Times: ‘Our idea for Supersurface was kind of a pre-vision of what became the Internet. We wanted to show that design and architecture could be philosophical, theoretical activities and provoke a new consciousness.’

Superstudio was also the subject of exhibitions at Milan’s Triennale in 1973, the Venice Biennale in 1978, 1996 and 2014, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1976. In 2000 the Centre Pompidou acquired the group’s archive, which was subsequently added to the permanent exhibition.

When the members of Superstudio went their separate ways in the late 1970s, Toraldo di Francia founded his own architectural practice in Florence. His built projects include SanPaolo di Torino banking institute in Prato, the Banca Toscana headquarters in Pistoia and the bus shelter at Santa Maria Novella station in Florence, which was controversially demolished by Matteo Renzi in 2010. He later moved to the Marche region, where he set up a practice with Lorena Luccioni, whom he would marry in 1999.

Cristiano Toraldo di Francia speaking in the 2017 documentary Super Design

A clip of Cristiano Toraldo di Francia speaking in the 2017 documentary Super Design

(Image credit: press)

Toraldo di Francia spent the majority of his career as a lecturer and professor. From 1974 he was a frequent lecturer at universities across Europe, Asia and North America. From 2003, he was an associate professor of Architecture at the University of Camerino, as well as a visiting professor at California State University, teaching architectural design.

Toraldo di Francia’s legacy will forever be as an agitator, an intellectual and an essential figure in the canon of 20th century architectural thought. ‘Our documentary could not have ended in a more significant way,’ remembers Didero of working with the visionary architect, ‘than Toraldo di Francia, looking straight into the camera and stating, in an ironical and yet profound manner: “Today, I think that it’s time to re-read Marx”.'

Laura May Todd, Wallpaper's Milan Editor, based in the city, is a Canadian-born journalist covering design, architecture and style. She regularly contributes to a range of international publications, including T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Azure and Sight Unseen, and is about to publish a book on Italian interiors.